8 turning points in medieval European history

What are the moments in medieval Europe when history could have taken a different path? Dr Charles West of the University of Sheffield selects eight events – among many – that signalled significant change…

In 802 Charlemagne took delivery of an elephant, sent to him by Harun al-Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad. Here, a manuscript illumination from a late 12th century English Latin bestiary. (Image by Alamy)

Did medieval Europe have historical turning points: moments when its history could have taken a different path? Some historians might argue that all the most important historical processes unfold over the long­-term, as social habits slowly evolve and economies gradually develop. And maybe all really important historical change has so much momentum that it doesn’t depend on the outcome of any particular event.

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Yet we shouldn’t neglect the role of contingency and accident in shaping how longer-term change takes form. After all, nothing in history is inevitable. And in any case, looking at moments when slow, invisible processes manifest themselves can help us better understand what these developments meant for people at the time. We can think of ‘turning points’ as the drumbeats of the past, marking time and the rhythm of change at a human level.

We can think of ‘turning points’ as the drumbeats of the past, marking time and the rhythm of change at a human level

So, here’s my list of turning points in medieval European history, which undergraduates at the University of Sheffield will be learning more about in a course that focuses on European plurality and diversity. There were many others that nearly made the list – for instance, a lecture on Byzantium and eastern Europe, or on the encounter between indigenous American peoples and Scandinavian Vikings. But the course only has eight slots, and these are the ones I decided were indispensable this year. Some of them you will definitely know, others might be less familiar. Without doubt, every medieval historian would come up with a different selection. What would your list include, and which ones would you drop?


You can also listen to Dr Charles West discuss medieval turning points on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


1

Pope Gregory the Great’s mission to the English in 596

Pope Gregory I’s decision to send Christian missionaries to convert the Angli in Britain in 596 was unquestionably an important moment in English history. True, missionaries had already been active in England, notably from Ireland. But it was Gregory’s missionary, Augustine, who set up shop in the Kentish kingdom ruled by Æthelberht and his Frankish queen Berta, and established an archbishopric at Canterbury which became and remains the head of the English church.

But this was a moment that also had significant European dimensions. One of the distinctive features of medieval Europe was its enduring political fragmentation into a great number of independent peoples, each ruling their own territory. And one of the things that gave these groups coherence – that bolstered their collective identity – was their conversion, as peoples, to Christianity.

Pope Gregory I
Pope Gregory I, called the great. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The conversion of the English is emblematic of this wider European process. It’s unlikely that most people in sixth-century lowland Britain thought of themselves as ‘English’. Nevertheless, Gregory’s mission unwittingly helped this collective identity gain strength and solidity. The English, like many other groups across the continent, became a people in the eyes of God, and that proved a powerful social glue in England as elsewhere.

 

2

The establishment of Al-Andalus in 711

For many people, medieval Europe has associations with Christianity. But not only were there always substantial communities of other faiths throughout the continent, quite a lot of Europe was under non-Christian rulership.

In 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad led an army from North Africa into battle against the Visigothic kings of Iberia. A stunning military victory laid the foundations for the emirate and later caliphate of Al-Andalus, with its capital at Córdoba. In the 10th century, Al-Andalus was probably the richest and most powerful European state; in the 11th century, even as it fell apart politically, it was home to a stellar array of brilliant poets, musicians and scholars, writing in Arabic and Hebrew. And it was from Al-Andalus that the rest of Europe learned about the concept of zero, and how to build an astrolabe. The nearly eight centuries of the existence of Al-Andalus, which began in 711, reminds us that multiculturalism is nothing new in European history, and that medieval Europe was never only Christian.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba
The Great Mosque of Córdoba. In the 10th century, Al-Andalus was probably the richest and most powerful European state. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

 

3

An elephant arrives in Aachen, 802

Through unceasing military expeditions, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne gathered up swathes of territory, creating an empire that included all or part of a dozen modern countries. In recognition of his pre-eminence, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope on Christmas Day in 800. But what’s less known is that in 802 he took delivery of an elephant, sent to him by Harun al-Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad, thousands of miles away. The elephant’s name was Abul Abaz, and he lived with Charlemagne for eight years.

Now, maybe this wasn’t strictly speaking a turning point, except perhaps from the elephant’s perspective. Yet as historian Giuseppe Albertoni has pointed out, Charlemagne’s elephant has often been passed over by historians, to whom it (or rather he) has seemed incongruous. After all, what would a warlord determined on laying the foundations of Europe, as Charlemagne has often been presented, want with such an exotic gift? Of course, that’s precisely the point. Charlemagne wasn’t trying to build Europe. His priorities were shaped by the world he lived in, whose horizons were often more international than we might now suppose, as Abul Abaz’s long residence in Aachen attests.

 

4

Slavery and the year 1000

It’s generally agreed that ancient Rome was a slave society: that is, a society where slavery was an economically and socially fundamental institution, and whose many accomplishments would have been unthinkable without the forced labour of enslaved people, women and men. In medieval Europe, however, although chattel enslavement never entirely vanished, unfreedom was more usually a matter of degree, and those who worked the fields and spun the wool are considered to have been serfs, not slaves.

So, when did slavery become serfdom? Some historians have argued that we should date this transformation to around the year 1000, when ancient systems of legal discrimination dissolved away without fanfare, replaced by more supple and flexible forms of economic and social control. Others, however, have fiercely disagreed, arguing that slavery had faded away long before, or that the differences between slavery and serfdom have been exaggerated. Either way, a possible change in the social order that affected millions of people is a turning point definitely worth considering, because it brings into focus the overwhelming majority of the population of the time.

 

5

The Pataria uprising in Milan in 1057

The decades of urban unrest that broke out in 11th-century Milan, stirred up by a social movement known as the Pataria, might not be on many people’s list of medieval history’s turning points. Most people today probably haven’t even heard of it, or its leader Ariald (who, in any case, ended up being murdered and dumped in a lake).

The Pataria uprising opens up the scale and implications of medieval Europe’s urbanisation

But I think it deserves consideration because it opens up the scale and implications of medieval Europe’s urbanisation. Although the majority of Europe’s population lived in the countryside until the 20th century, towns in the 11th century were expanding rapidly. That expansion brought with it intensified trade and commerce, but the new concentrations of population, often of several thousand people all living together, also brought new challenges of governance, and a new kind of political actor to a world hitherto dominated by aristocratic elites: the crowd that was so prominent in 11th-century Milan’s politics.

 

6

The Rhineland massacres of 1096

In 1096, armies of crusaders en route to try to capture Jerusalem paused in the Rhineland to persecute the thriving Jewish communities in cities such as Mainz, Worms and Speyer. Local Christian leaders sometimes offered what protection they could, but it was often not enough. Harrowing accounts of the violence that was inflicted still survive, from both Jewish and Christian writers, including horrific depictions of families forced to commit suicide.

These massacres have much to tell us about the First Crusade. All of the sources for the crusade were only written up after its astonishing success; so the terrible events in the Rhineland are important evidence for the original mindset and intentions of many of the crusaders. But the atrocities have also been seen as a turning point in Jewish history, as a distant foreshadowing of the intolerance and hatred that eventually led to the Holocaust.

 

7

The Albigensian Crusade of 1209

The Albigensian Crusade which began in 1209 can be considered as a turning point because, unlike previous crusades, its targets were not Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean but Christians in southern France. These Christians had been classed as heretics, or as defenders of heretics. In other words, Christendom began to identify and to attempt to destroy enemies within, as well as enemies without, using violence if necessary.

Recently, historians have begun a heated debate about whether there really were any heretics in southern France at all, or whether they were largely invented, or constructed, by clerical elites. Whatever the case, the Albigensian Crusade is a way into thinking about how medieval Europe after 1100 became a ‘persecuting society’, and why it was that people became so hostile to perceived difference, and so keen to enforce conformity.


Listen: Rebecca Rist responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the medieval Christian campaigns in the Middle East, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


8

The Black Death in 1347

In 1347, a new disease arrived in Europe. Historians now call it the Black Death, but contemporaries knew it simply as the plague or pestilence. There is a growing consensus that it killed at least a third of the population – a scale of devastation that is still difficult to imagine, even as the modern world endures a 21st-century pandemic.

The Black Death
There is a growing consensus that the Black Death killed at least a third of the population. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Black Death is perhaps the clearest turning point of them all, with far-reaching demographic, cultural, social, political and economic consequences. As we all now know, pandemics can exacerbate inequalities as well as create common frames of reference. But of course, the Black Death was never just a European disease. It was a catastrophe on the Eurasian scale, and as such a reminder that medieval Europe was only ever a small part of a much bigger world.

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Dr Charles West is Reader in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield, with a research interest in earlier medieval European (including British) history c600–1200. You can listen to a discussion with Dr West on the HistoryExtra podcast here